14 Jan 2015

"They Say the #1 Killer of Old People is Retirement" 

— Budd, Kill Bill Vol 2

As someone who derives much of my vitality and creative energy from doing work I believe is important, my immediate reaction to Ezekial Emmanuel's Why I Hope to Die at 75 was: Emmanuel must have run out of things to work on. With my mother approaching retirement age, my next thought was: I hope no one I love feels the way Emmanuel does.

I have reread Emmanuel's essay a few times now, trying to understand how he can feel the way he does.  Where he says that living too long “robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world,” I can empathize.  Much of my own sense of purpose in life comes from doing work that I hope contributes to society and the world, so I can imagine feeling despair if my health were to degrade to a point that I feel that I am no longer able to contribute. Emmanuel goes on to argue that because “increases in longevity seem to have been accompanied by increases in disability” and decreases in productivity, people should just die younger.

Though it makes for an eye-catching headline, Emmanuel's solution is a bit defeatist. A better alternative would be to figure out how we can start accompanying increases in longevity with a sustained quality of life and productivity. I suspect we can address the degraded health piece of the equation with healthy eating and exercise habits (but I won't go into depth into this half of things in this essay), and I think we can help people continue to feel productive and valued by instilling them with some sense of greater purpose after retirement. The same calculus of generosity that leads Emmanuel to conclude he wants to end his life because he doesn't want to place a burden on others in his old age might motivate him to want to continue living if he were spending his life working towards some goal that benefited others.

When talking to my mother about her imminent retirement she expressed her desire to open a bed and breakfast. I love this idea. The sharpest older people I have encountered have all been actively working on something, and I think the challenge of running a small business and working in hospitality, where the mission is essentially to provide comfort and happiness to others, will be sources of vitality to my mother.

My mother is part of the baby boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, and it is difficult for me to think of her own retirement without also considering the implications of the retirement of her entire generation. So, my thinking about helping my mom open a bed and breakfast led me to designing a broader system that might enable anyone like my mom do the same thing. I started envisioning that arrival back home at the parents' place, well past supper time after a long evening of driving, perhaps with a few friends.

Mom hustles everyone inside, offers (insists on) pulling leftover dinner out of the fridge and warming it up for everyone to enjoy a “decent, home cooked meal” after their journey. She sits sipping a cup of tea across the table while getting filled in on the latest details of what all the kids are up to.

I've had a similar experience even when visiting friends' moms, and I imagined a network of retirees and empty nesters across the country running bed and breakfasts providing this authentic “visit Mom” experience. I registered the domain mombnb.com.

But taking a step back from my enthusiasm for this particular idea, I like the basic framework of providing a streamlined path for retirees to participate in some sort of more active retirement that would both give them a little additional income and also, hopefully, something more fulfilling and inspiring than leisure activities to wake up for every day. With the older edge of the boomer generation just beginning to hit age 65, I worry a little what will happen as such a huge percentage Americans exit the workforce and begin to live off of retirement benefits.

Both Social Security and Medicare face funding challenges due to the larger number of Americans enrolling in these services and a decreasing ratio of workers to enrollees, and although the Medicare outlook appears to be not as bleak as we once thought, it seems unwise to me to assume these programs will support the entire boomer generation as they have supported past generations.

You can already see signs that the prototypical image of retirees moving to Florida to golf, bowl, and play cards might not last much longer. Harper's The End of Retirement: When you can't afford to stop working tells of Americans who cannot afford to live on their retirement benefits alone. They live in RVs, migrating with the seasons to work as pickers in Amazon factories, farmers, ticket vendors, guards, or in other odd jobs.

When I sent this essay to my mom with the subject line “interesting,” she responded, “I find this more frightening than interesting.” Thankfully, I don't think my mom has to fear adopting a migrant worker life to afford living after she retires, but I do think economics are another important piece of the baby boomer retirement puzzle to consider.

I'm not saying that retirees no longer deserve the opportunity to enjoy retirement years as they please, and I know that many retirees already choose to enroll in some sort of volunteer efforts, but I would bet that there are a large number of people who (1) may quickly become bored with a retirement limited to leisure activities or (2) may not be able to afford a retirement of leisure. And, these same people are still extremely capable of solving important problems and doing meaningful work.

I'd love to see some sort of presidential challenge reminiscent of JFK's “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” calling retirees to action, letting them know there are important problems in this country that they can help solve.

For example, suppose we asked boomer retirees to help us improve the quality of k-12 US education, which, given US performance in standardized testing, is underwhelming compared to the rest of the developed world.  A well educated citizenry is essential if we are to succeed in governing by democracy, and, per Teach for America's mission, education is one of the best ways to provide children from low income families a fair opportunity to increase their standard of living.

We could create a program similar to Teach for America, but instead of training new college grads to become teachers, we could train recent retirees. After someone retires at 65, they could spend a year or two traveling or relaxing, and then if they get bored, enroll in a teacher training program which would equip them to teach at a public school. Perhaps they wouldn't work a full forty hour week, teaching only 2 or 3 classes per day. This could still be hugely valuable to schools and to students.

When I told a friend about my idea for enlisting the help of retirees as public school teachers, she pointed me to Speaking Exchange, a program that connects seniors and students trying to learn English over Skype. Speaking exchange both satisfies the desire for companionship and meaningful work for seniors, and helps students practice speaking English and gain fluency.

I love this concept, and I think there's a powerful framework here, a way of thinking about challenges we face as a society as symbiotic pieces in an ecological puzzle. My own thought experiment, which began by thinking about my mother's retirement, led me to a consideration of issues like increasing vitality for older people, supplementing retiree income, and improving quality of education in low income areas of the US. The result was an idea for a system that could potentially make improvements in all three of areas.

I realize all of these unsolicited suggestions may sound a bit whippersnapper-y, but they are inspired by a desire to see a long and healthy retirement for the people I love. The ideas I present here are intended not as a prescription, rather as a thought experiment that I hope may inspire others to start thinking about some of these challenges, perhaps using a similar framework.


Thoughts? Email me: andrew.kortina@gmail.com

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